Michael David Lukas’ multi- gen­er­a­tional tale

The Asian Age - - Sunday The Asian Age - ● SAYONI SINHA

With a few small ex­cep­tions, the char­ac­ters in the nine­teenth- cen­tury plot­line re­ally ex­isted. The story of the al- Raqb fam­ily was in­spired by a con­ver­sa­tion I had on an air­plane with a Ben­gali Mus­lim woman whose fam­ily served for gen­er­a­tions as watch­men of a syn­a­gogue in Kolkata. — Michael David Lukas

The Last Watch­man

of Old Cairo be­gins al­most a thou­sand years ago when Ali, a Mus­lim or­phan, be­comes the night watch­man at the Ibn Ezra Syn­a­gogue, built at the site where the in­fant Moses was taken from the Nile. A cou­ple of cen­turies later, in 1897, twin sis­ters Agnes Lewis and Mar­garet Gib­son ar­rive in Cairo to ac­quire the an­cient scrolls held in the syn­a­gogue’s Geniza, a sa­cred stor­age vault. And now, Joseph, a half- Jewish and half- Mus­lim stu­dent trav­els to Cairo on re­ceiv­ing a news­pa­per clip­ping from his re­cently de­ceased fa­ther. What binds all three sto­ries is the leg­endary 2,000- year- old Ezra scroll, pur­ported to be “a per­fect copy of the He­brew scrip­tures writ­ten thou­sands of years ago” that was sup­pos­edly stored in the syn­a­gogue. The au­thor mag­nif­i­cently stitches the three nar­ra­tives across cen­turies around the fa­bled scroll that in­trigued him. “I came across a brief men­tion of the Ezra Scroll in a foot­note to an aca­demic ar­ti­cle about the Ger­man Jewish scholar of mys­ti­cism, Ger­shom Sc­holem. The mo­ment I read about this per­fect To­rah scroll, which was pur­ported to have mag­i­cal pow­ers, a shiver went up my spine and I knew I had to find a way to fit it into the novel,” he says.

Jews con­sider texts that in­clude the name of God sa­cred and when they are no longer us­able, they are ei­ther buried or stored in a stor­age room or vault of a syn­a­gogue. Like other syn­a­gogues, the Ben Ezra Syn­a­gogue also con­tained a Geniza, and over the cen­turies, the Jewish com­mu­nity had de­posited var­i­ous doc­u­ments there — some price­less, some mun­dane. “The first time I heard of the Cairo Geniza, a trea­sure trove of doc­u­ments stored for hun­dreds of years in the at­tic of an an­cient syn­a­gogue, I wanted to know more. Luck­ily, there are a num­ber of re­ally great books about the Geniza, and the Jews of Cairo, in gen­eral. The first one I en­coun­tered was In An An­tique

Land, by Ami­tav Ghosh, which does a won­der­ful job of de­scrib­ing the me­dieval Mediter­ranean world in all its cos­mopoli­tan glory. Aside from that, I also leaned heav­ily on the grip­ping aca­demic his­tory Sa­cred Trash and a bril­liant six- vol­ume de­pic­tion of the Jews of Cairo called

A Mediter­ranean So­ci­ety,” he adds.

In the tightly wo­ven tale, each nar­ra­tive is peo­pled by char­ac­ters whose im­por­tance lies in the era they live in. The char­ac­ters here are not flam­boy­ant and some of them are based on his­tor­i­cal per­son­ages, some in­spired by peo­ple he has known while oth­ers are en­tirely in­vented. “With a few small ex­cep­tions, the char­ac­ters in the nine­teen­th­cen­tury plot­line re­ally ex­isted. The story of the al- Raqb fam­ily was in­spired by a con­ver­sa­tion I had on an air­plane with a Ben­gali Mus­lim woman whose fam­ily served for gen­er­a­tions as watch­men of a syn­a­gogue in Kolkata. And the char­ac­ters in the con­tem­po­rary sec­tion are based on my own ex­pe­ri­ence liv­ing in Cairo in the fall of 2000,” he says ad­ding that when he started writ­ing the book, the idea was to be a big doorstop­per span­ning a thou­sand years of Jewish his­tory in Cairo, with a plot line for each cen­tury. But, soon after he started writ­ing, he re­al­ized it was go­ing to be too con­vo­luted and vast to write. “So I whit­tled it down a bit ( to seven plot­lines, I think). Then I whit­tled it down a bit more. By the time I got to the fourth draft, I had got­ten the book down to three plot lines: one in the eleventh cen­tury, one in the nine­teenth cen­tury, and one at the cusp of the twenty- first cen­tury. The next four or five drafts were about re­fin­ing, get­ting the char­ac­ters right, and mak­ing the struc­ture work, which took a lot of en­ergy, but paled in com­par­i­son to the tec­tonic shifts of the first few drafts.”

In his ex­plo­ration of the ten cen­turies of Cairo’s his­tory, in­clud­ing times when the city’s Jews and Mus­lims lived side by side in rel­a­tive har­mony till the ex­pul­sion un­der Egypt’s former Ga­mal Ab­del Nasser, Michael keeps hint­ing at the fu­ture pos­si­bil­ity of peace­ful co- ex­is­tence. As Joseph ex­plores the roots of his fa­ther’s fam­ily in Cairo where his fore­fa­thers used to be the watch­man of an an­cient syn­a­gogue, pro­tect­ing its se­crets and faith with their courage and sac­ri­fices, high­light­ing this as­pect. “I wanted Joseph to em­body the themes of hy­brid­ity and co- ex­is­tence that sit at the heart of the book. I wanted to see what hap­pened when these, of­ten ex­ter­nal ques­tions be­came in­ter­nal. Plus, I’ve al­ways been ob­sessed with the idea that ( be­cause Jewish lin­eage is ma­tri­lin­eal and Mus­lim lin­eage is pa­tri­lin­eal) you can be fully Jewish and fully Mus­lim at the same time,” he says. When he set out to write the book, he imag­ined it would stick closely to the ex­pe­ri­ence of the Jews of Cairo, which meant that it would be nar­rated pri­mar­ily by Jewish char­ac­ters. “But, as I dug into the book, I re­alised that it’s ac­tu­ally a story about cross­ing bound­aries. It’s a book about the day- to- day ex­pe­ri­ence of co- ex­is­tence. The dif­fer­ent voice, then, re­flect this theme of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and hy­brid­ity,” says the au­thor.

Michael who has al­ready be­gun work on a retelling of the bi­b­li­cal Book of Es­ther set in a postapoc­a­lyp­tic fu­ture, feels that if he could force read­ers to take one thing away from the book, it will be this: “We need more bridges and fewer walls, more win­dows, and fewer mir­rors. And in this par­tic­u­lar mo­ment, I think, we need sto­ries about peo­ple liv­ing to­gether, not nec­es­sar­ily in har­mony, but with re­spect and the hope of mu­tual un­der­stand­ing,” he con­cludes.

THE LAST WATCH­MAN OF OLD CAIRO by M. DAVID LUKAS Spiegel & Grau Pp. 288, ` 399

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